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Teachers unions are ‘thrilled’ by Gov. Cuomo’s education agenda, but school funding remains in play

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Just three years ago, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was locked in a ferocious policy battle with the powerful state teachers union, he mocked those whose only idea to improve schools is “more money, more money, more money.”

All that extra funding had ever achieved, he said then, was mediocre academic results, “a larger and larger bureaucracy and higher salaries.”

But now, as Cuomo prepares to seek a third term this fall and eyes a potential presidential bid in 2020, he’s changed his tune.

In his agenda-setting State of the State speech last week, he proposed a slate of uncontroversial, union-friendly education proposals — the continuation of a yearslong shift away from the controversial policies involving teacher evaluations, charter schools, and other issues that put him at odds with teachers unions in 2015.

Most significantly, he’s dropped the argument that New York gets too little in return for the amount it spends on schools, instead calling last week for the state to continue its “historic investment in public education.”

However, it remains to be seen whether his rhetoric will translate into a big boost in dollars. The state faces a budget crunch and looming federal spending cuts, which has Republican lawmakers calling for fiscal restraint. Meanwhile, advocates question how serious Cuomo is about sending more money to schools.

So far, we have no reason to think the reality of his budget will meet the rhetoric,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education.

Despite his past wariness about unchecked education spending, Cuomo has actually expanded that part of the state’s budget over his two terms as governor.

Last year, he negotiated a $1.1 billion hike in state education aid, which he touted as the “largest investment in the history of the state.” Over the past seven years, he has boosted school spending by more than $6 billion to $25.8 billion last year — its highest level ever, a Cuomo spokeswoman pointed out.

However, advocates are still smarting from Cuomo’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt last year to make changes to a formula designed to funnel money to high-poverty school districts. Advocates said the changes would have allowed the state to withhold funding that those districts are owed under a decade-old lawsuit, but officials disputed that claim and said the governor still planned to give high-needs schools their due.

In last week’s speech, Cuomo railed against “funding inequities” and called for increased aid to poor districts. However, last year’s battle over the funding formula has left advocates doubting Cuomo’s sincerity.

“So far with him, school aid has been an exercise in the ‘hunger games’,” Easton said. “If he’s just going to give a little more to the neediest districts but still leave them way underfunded, then he’s just playing games.”

State officials said any suggestion that the governor has underfunded schools is “patently false.”

If school-funding advocates remain leery of Cuomo, the teachers unions — once the governor’s fiercest enemies — have mostly made peace with them as they rally around a common enemy: President Trump and his allies in Congress.

“We’ve had differences in the past. We’ve had fights with him,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of New York City’s teachers union. But they are now united in their opposition to President Trump’s agenda, which he called “an existential threat to our core principles.”

“We’re working together,” said Andy Pallotta, president of the state teachers union, in a separate interview. He said the union is “thrilled” with Cuomo’s move in their direction.

Cuomo and the state legislature must still hash out this year’s budget, the largest chunk of which traditionally goes to schools. So far, state Republicans, who control the senate, have sent mixed messages on spending.

Carl Marcellino, who chairs the senate education committee, told Politico New York: “For the most part, education will continue to grow.” But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has urged caution about increasing spending. On Tuesday, he proposed a series of tax cuts, which could restrict revenue to the state.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s budget negotiations, some observers remain skeptical that Cuomo is truly committed to a labor-backed education agenda centered on increased spending.

“I’m not sure that he’s more progressive — I think he’s simply highlighting a more progressive agenda,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “To my mind, he’s the same old Cuomo.

Movers and shakers

Memphis Education Fund has a new leader. Here’s what the group will put money behind going forward.

PHOTO: Memphis Education Fund
Terence Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town.

Memphis’ most prominent education philanthropic fund officially has a new leader in former interim CEO Terence Patterson – and one of his big goals for Memphis Education Fund is to finance more creative, grass-roots solutions to education problems facing the city.

“We’re not going to sit back and wait for someone to bring us an idea,” Patterson said. “We’re getting out in the schools and meeting regularly with school leaders, as well as education partners from across the country.”

(Memphis Education Fund supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

The philanthropy is significant in the Memphis education funding landscape – where cash-strapped districts and charter schools seek outside funding funneled through the Education Fund to improve school facilities, add new curriculums, and even fund in-school positions.

Patterson wants to see multiple types of giving as he enters his second month as CEO.

He is introducing “innovation grants.” His organization will work with education partners, districts, and school leaders to identify innovative programs already happening in Memphis classrooms or elsewhere. Patterson said there’s not a set dollar amount for the grants or any formal application process.

In addition, next year the Education Fund will focus on initiatives that help parents better understand their school choices, increase the number of quality school offerings in Memphis, and improve equitable access to school facilities.

“We see this as helping to fill gaps in bringing quality resources with quality instruction to schools,” Patterson said. “We’re in a position to collaborate with the county commission, the school board, and district leadership to really push on academic achievement.”

The Memphis Education Fund has invested more than $50 million in education initiatives since 2015 — ranging from helping charter schools pay for new curriculums to bolstering teacher and principal pipelines.

The philanthropy has also worked with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift on the possibility of creating a “unified enrollment system.” Each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top school choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent.

Currently, Memphis has multiple types of schools that require applying in different ways, on different websites. Supporters of unified enrollment, such as Memphis Lift, say it will benefit parents who don’t have the time to research schools on their own.

“To have a true choice district, this is an important component,” Patterson said. “The Memphis landscape has its own nuances. … but common enrollment is an important factor in how we think about choice.”

He also said he hopes to see his organization be more vocal about education policy and continue to prioritize groups focused on teacher and school leader recruitment and retention.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 with help from a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists wanted to transform Memphis into a destination for talented teachers. In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools, brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson from Indianapolis, and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

Robinson left in April for a job in St. Louis, and Patterson stepped in as interim. Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town. He was the former chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.

Patterson said he is the right fit for the job because of his background with Memphis schools, in managing districts, and in fundraising. He also said part of his job responsibilities would be bringing more national funders to Memphis.

Outgoing Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would be “thrilled to partner” with Patterson.

“He’s world class, and I can’t think of a better selection to support this community’s work to continue to improve student achievement and access to high-quality education,” Hopson said. “He’s worked in a large school district and understands the Memphis context given his grantmaking experience.”

Policy impact

Controversial school inventory report starts to surface in Chicago decision making

PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

When Chicago Public Schools rolled out a comprehensive inventory of its schools and programs earlier this fall, community activists feared that the district would wield the report to close yet more sparsely attended neighborhood schools, and bring in more charters.

But just the opposite happened this week. The school board rejected Intrinsic Schools’ proposal to open a new charter high school in the Loop next school year that would draw students from across the city, following staff advice drawn on the report, the Annual Regional Analysis.

The vote disappointed backers of Intrinsic charter school, which operates a top-rated high school in the Irving Park community on the Northwest Side. The problem, school officials explained, is that the plan didn’t mesh with the district’s map pinpointing which neighborhoods need such high-quality schools.

It turns out, the Loop doesn’t fit the bill.

Build schools where CPS needs it, and then we’ll have a different conversation,” board President Frank Clark told crestfallen supporters of Intrinsic.

The school board and district leadership are under increasing pressure to justify any new school openings as enrollment continues to drop, and as neighborhood schools losing population call for investments and programs to better serve and attract more students. Declining enrollment was cited on Wednesday as one of the most formidable risks the school system faces.

The school board also voted Wednesday to deny two other charter school applications, although for reasons not tied to the Annual Regional Analysis, which the district compiled with assistance from school-choice group Kids First.

Since it was made public in September, the inventory of academic options, enrollment, and quality has become a tool used by the district to convene conversations about neighborhood-by-neighborhood options and, as the board meeting made clear Wednesday, to make hard decisions. Mary Bradley, executive director of the district’s department of innovation and incubation,  said the Intrinsic proposal “does not align with needs identified in the ARA.”

“Where are the needs?” Clark asked Bradley following her presentation explaining the denial.

“Quality needs are mainly on the South and West sides of Chicago,” schools chief Janice Jackson said.

Intrinsic parent Lucy Weatherly said she was deeply disappointed. She touted the current Intrinsic school’s Level 1-plus rating and supportive school community.

But her plea and those of other school supporters did not sway the board.

The denial might have been the first board decision about a school’s fate explicitly tied to the Annual Regional Analysis, which divides the city into 16 planning districts, including the one Intrinsic had proposed a school, the Central Area Region. The area includes downtown, the Loop, and the South Loop.  

The district touts the detailed report as a base of facts to aid planning and community engagement, and it has hosted a series of workshops in neighborhoods around the city to discuss the findings. (There are six meetings left.) But several groups have criticized the document as too reliant on data and school ratings and questioned the district’s intent, given that school quality and enrollment that has been used to justify school closings, turnarounds, and proposals for more charter schools.

On Wednesday, however, school officials used the report to argue that the Intrinsic charter proposal doesn’t meet any existing community need for additional high quality seats.

The majority of students who live in the Central Area Region or attend school there attend top-rated schools. The region’s student population is about 20 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 34 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic, and it’s the only region where white and Asian students outnumber black and Hispanic students. The area is gaining Asian students and losing black students, and the families are growing more moneyed.

The region houses two top-rated selective enrollment schools that draw population from across the city, Jones College Prep and Walter Payton College Prep.

The Intrinsic school would have been the fifth high school in the region and the third charter high school, after Noble-Muchin and Perspectives-Joslin, two citywide schools rated Level 1-plus and 2-plus, respectively.

The area’s population and enrollment have increased since 2014. That’s a sharp contrast with most communities, hence Chicago Schools’ much bemoaned enrollment crisis, which in 2013 was used to justify closing 50 schools.

The challenges posed by Chicago’s dwindling number of children wasn’t lost on school officials at Wednesday’s meeting, especially during a presentation Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett provided about the key risks facing the school district.

Clark asked her what the biggest problems were.

Even amid a state takeover of the troubled special education program and continued fallout over the student sexual abuse scandal, her first response was declining enrollment.